The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen: If I ever have kids…

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Lloyd Alexander The Remarkable Journey of Prince JenThe Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen by Lloyd Alexander

If I ever have kids, I’m going to make sure that their bookshelves are stocked full of Lloyd Alexander’s books. Most famous for his award-winning The Prydain Chronicles, Alexander has carved out a little niche for himself in children’s literature by taking his often-used (but never stale) technique of adapting a particular culture’s mythology and shaping it to include his own brand of wisdom, poignancy and humour. For The Prydain Chronicles Alexander borrowed heavily from Welsh mythology as found in the The Mabinogian, whereas The Iron Ring focused on India’s The Ramayana and The Arkadians was based on Grecian legend. For The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, the story is given a Chinese setting.

Jen Shao-yeh is an innocent, yet good-hearted young prince who hears about the kingdom of T’ien-Ko from a mysterious stranger named Master Wu. Enraptured by the tale of the peaceful and happy kingdom, Jen is given permission by his father to seek out T’ien-Ko and learn the secrets of King Yuan-ming’s safe and happy governance. Accompanying him is his faithful (though grumbling) servant Mafoo, and a collection of strange gifts chosen by Master Wu to present to Yuan-ming. Jen is initially confused at the seeming worthlessness of the six gifts: an old sword, a saddle, a flute, a bowl, a paint-box and a kite. However, Master Wu insists that they are valuable, and Jen sets off optimistically to find the legendary kingdom.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan. As Jen’s royal entourage slowly dwindles (as does his strange assortment of gifts through a series of misfortunes) the prince’s hopes of reaching T’ien-Ko gradually begin to dwindle — despite his meeting with the lovely Voyaging Moon, an intelligent flute-girl who cleverly uses the prince to escape her lecherous master. And yet, it is not with our protagonist, but through the gifts that the narration flows. As they part from Jen and constantly change hands throughout the story, we see the true value of each of them — realizing that this value comes from the personal gifts of their owners.

Furthermore, it becomes clear that this is a coming-of-age story, as the naïve prince goes from innocence to experience throughout the course of his journey, learning wisdom, patience, love and a fuller understanding of the world: particularly the injustices of his own kingdom. With the loss of his possessions, his honour and his identity as prince, he ends asking himself the inevitable question: who am I? Struggling with his integrity and sense of worth, Jen finally succumbs to despair in a bone-chilling chapter, though he is helped along at the most opportune times by the enigmatic Master Wu — or is it Chu? Or Shu? Or Fu?

Lloyd Alexander’s warm, humorous narration just leaps off the page. On describing the elderly man who approaches the gate of the royal palace we are told: “He was not a beggar, because he asks for no alms. He was not a man of wisdom, because he asked for something ridiculous: he demanded an audience with King T’ai.” Likewise, if you were amused by the tendency toward extravagant titles in The Princess Bride (the Cliffs of Insanity for example), then you’ll love the lengths to which this book goes to in naming various objects, including the Rod of Correction, Hand of Enthusiastic Obedience and Pavilion of Joyous Mornings.

Alexander also has some fun with the chapters, usually giving each one several subtitles, and ending each one with a few lines to entice the reader onto the next installment of the story, for example: “Our young hero is eager to start his journey, but Master Wu seems to be casting a dark shadow on a bright prospect. What can be the difficulty? To find out, read the next chapter.”

There is always one requisite female character in Alexander’s books, who inevitably acts as the love interest to the male lead. However, Alexander always writes her with such wit, affection and twice as much intelligence as any other character in the story that you cannot help but fall in love with her yourself. By the skill of his storytelling, Alexander always manages to keep her from becoming a Mary Sue, and Voyaging Moon is no exception. Bright, clever and cheerful, it’s no wonder Jen falls head over heels in love with her!

In short, this is a terrific book. Filled with life-lessons that never sound preachy or heavy-handed (something not even Philip Pullman or C.S. Lewis could completely pull off), a satisfying conclusion in which all of Alexander’s scattered pieces come together to a climactic finish, and several laugh-out-loud moments: “Give the task to the lowest-ranking official in the palace. If something fatal happens to him, he won’t be missed. Better yet, send a high official, who will be missed even less.”

The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen — (1991) Young adult. Publisher: When Prince Jen volunteers to search for the legendary court of T’ien-kuo, a mysterious old man chooses six gifts for him to bear in homage: a saddle, a sword, a paint box, a bowl, a kite, and a flute. Puzzled by the gifts but full of high spirits and pride, Jen sets off — but stumbles almost immediately into a series of misfortunes. Only with the help of his faithful servant, Mafoo, and valiant flute-girl, Voyaging Moon, and only after a breathtakingly exciting string of adventures can Jen discover the real meaning of the gifts and face his true destiny…

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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